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Why Weeds?

If you use new technology while it’s still buggy, you’re an innovator too.
January 1, 2002

Even the most casual reader of Technology Review can’t avoid coming to the obvious conclusion: there’s no shortage of creative people with creative ideas. Quite the contrary, in disciplines ranging from software to biotechnology to materials science, the rate of technical change has accelerated far more rapidly than the ability of most markets to successfully absorb it.

The problem isn’t figuring out how to get people to become more “innovative”; it’s figuring out how to get people to accept and apply innovations more productively. The glut of new ideas has paradoxically created a critical shortage of the human ingredients that determine just how quickly and cost effectively they get used.

So instead of celebrating the “heroic brilliance” of innovators, this column will explore innovation from a different and more important perspective. After all, it is customers and clients-not innovators-who determine how great ideas become successful innovations. In fact, one could make the argument that customers-especially the so-called early adopters-are the true innovators in the development process.

As Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet inventor and founder of 3Com, observed in an inciteful/insightful essay for this magazine: “Invention is a flower, innovation is a weed” (TR November/December 1999). That is, an original idea can be brilliant, profound and compelling-but what ultimately gives it power and influence is that it spreads. Great ideas aren’t enough; they have to be adoptable and adaptable. They have to thrive outside the nurturing greenhouse and the loving gardener’s care.

Designing for adaptability, adoptability and diffusion is a black art. However, it’s a black art whose magic matters more and more in an era where choice is the rule and not the exception. The more choices you have, the more your values matter. The Microsofts, Mercks and BMWs have become as concerned about how best to package their “new&improvedware” as they are with the innovations themselves. Ironically, technology is annihilating the distinctions between the innovation and how it gets packaged and sold. The “breakthrough” is no longer in the idea itself; it’s in how the idea gets adopted. If it’s not adopted, it’s just another good idea.

Take, for example, the handwriting recognition software developed by Apple Computer for its handheld Newton personal digital assistant in the early 1990s. On a technical level, it was far more innovative than the Graffiti interface software used by nascent Palm. But it turned out that millions of people were willing to learn how to “write” in Graffiti via the cleverly designed interactive tutorial, while few people had the patience to wait for the Newton’s buggier handwriting recognition software to learn how to recognize their scribblings.

To be sure, the Palm’s one-button, one-touch PC synchronization interface played a big part in its popularity. But the fact remains that the less innovative technical solution that made more demands on the user became the undisputed market leader. Handwriting recognition software, so ardently championed by Apple, still languishes in technical limbo and marketing disrepute.

The point is that there is a complex ecology of innovation that requires aspiring entrepreneurs and established institutions to rethink what it means to bring ideas to markets. Sometimes-particularly during innovation gluts-it might be smarter to bring markets to ideas. “Most engineers don’t understand that selling matters,” Metcalfe wrote in his essay. “They think that on the food chain of life, salespeople are below green slime. They don’t understand that nothing happens until something gets sold.”

May I respectfully disagree? How about, nothing happens until something gets bought? As successful innovators know, how innovations get sold often has absolutely nothing to do with how they actually get bought. Just as importantly, how innovations get bought often has nothing to do with how they actually get used. These aren’t subtle distinctions or semantic games; these are the make-or-break factors that determine whether a brilliant idea is a solitary beautiful flower or a ubiquitous weed.

Not to worry-this will not be a column about “marketing” innovation. “Marketing” doesn’t come close to capturing the underlying dynamic and dialogue as innovators and customers experiment with beta software or brave new materials in order to get them to work. We need to recognize that the story of how a customer works with a new idea is every bit as dramatic and important as the story of how the innovator first came up with it.

“In the Weeds”-drawing from an array of both happy and hysterically tragic case studies-will explore and explain what innovation means from this counterintuitive perspective. How do innovations mutate and evolve to become more adoptable and adaptable? How might the epidemiology of innovation yield insights into better design for diffusion? Is survivability of an innovation overwhelmingly a matter of luck and timing or something else?

There are good answers to these questions. The goal of this column will be to find them, poke them and prod them into usefulness. Why? Because we need more innovative ideas about how to manage innovative ideas. Enough with the flowers; it’s time for the weeds.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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